Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Tag:

We’ve Failed Sherdavia Jenkins, And Others Like Her

I still remember your funeral.

I still remember the white casket, small with only two handles on each side.

I still remember the red teddy bear someone had placed near your head.

I still remember then-Florida state lawmaker Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall weeping over your coffin, then-Congressman Kendrick Meek standing there in speechless anguish, and then-Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio deploring the violence that took you away at just nine years of age. “In our very midst,” he said, “we sit on a crisis of epic proportions” that we fail to recognize.

At your graveside, they released a white dove and it zoomed away, skimming through the trees.

You write different columns for different reasons. Some you write to argue a point, some to vent anger. One reason I write this one, Sherdavia Jenkins, is because this week makes 10 years since you died and I feel the need to call your name.

Not that it will resonate for many people. They won’t know it in Seattle, Austin or Denver. But they’ll never forget it in Miami.

I’ve never been quite clear on why that is. After all, it’s not as if it’s unknown for children to be shot to death — in South Florida or elsewhere. So I’ve always wondered why you’re the one Miami named a park for, the one that is remembered.

Maybe it’s because you were a child of uncommon promise. At your funeral, they passed out a booklet of certificates you’d received, documenting excellence in reading, science, math and Spanish. You had your school’s top scores on the state math test and were named “best all-around student.”

So maybe we’re stung by the fact of a sparkling future, foreclosed. Or maybe it’s just the way you died, in a crossfire between two punk gangsters, while playing outside your own front door. What kind of country is it when a child is not safe on her own doorstep?

But again, your story is not unique. In the decade since you fell, thousands of other children have died by gunfire. They all had names, too.

Joseph Spencer, age 12, died nine years ago in Jackson, Miss.

Michael Alvin Muha, age 12, died eight years ago in Redstone Township, Pa.

Roberto Lopez, age four, died seven years ago in Los Angeles.

Rosay J. Butler Jr., age three, died six years ago in Selma, Ala.

Gabriel Martinez Jr., age five, died five years ago in Oakland.

Delric Miller, age nine months, died four years ago in Detroit.

Antonio Santiago, age 13 months, died three years ago in Brunswick, Ga.

Davia Garth, age 12, died two years ago in Cleveland.

Ja’Quail Mansaw, age seven months, died last year in Kansas City, Kan.

King Carter, age six, died in February near Miami.

Chicago is awash in the blood of its children. South Florida is routinely heartbroken. And I haven’t even mentioned the weekly massacres of children and adults in places like Newtown, Aurora and Orlando.

Sherdavia, I’d love to be able to say we’ve taken decisive action to fix this, but we haven’t. A nation where the right to free speech is regulated and the right to freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures was just narrowed again somehow considers the right to have a gun to be sacrosanct.

Lawmakers refuse to consider measures favored by the vast majority of us to keep guns away from those who should not have them. Yet we keep returning these paragons of moral idiocy to office. That includes Sen. Marco Rubio, who spoke at your funeral.

As I said, Sherdavia, you write columns for various reasons. I’ve given you one reason I’m writing this one. The other is simply that I felt the need to say the obvious: We’ve failed you in life and in death and I’m sorry.

You deserved better. They all did.

Bathroom Bans — Part Of The New American Ethos

Our question for today: What is the proper etiquette when confronted with an unexpected penis?

That’s from Roz, a Baltimore-area reader who emailed me a few days ago. Roz describes herself as a left-wing progressive, a “long-time supporter of gay rights,” a feminist and a Democrat who worked for President Obama’s election.

But Roz is concerned about transsexuals in the bathroom — more accurately, the locker room. “I am all for trans people having equal rights,” she writes, “but what about when they collide with non-trans people’s privacy?”

Roz’s question grows from an experience years ago at a spiritual retreat in California; she says she “freaked out” when a naked guy appeared in the group shower. “I was raised in the ’50s to think I am not supposed to expose my naked body to strangers of the opposite sex,” writes Roz, who says she swims three times a week for exercise and walks through the women’s locker room in the buff.

“I have no problem with trans people of whatever biology or stage of transition in bathroom stalls” she says, “but what about locker rooms where nudity is normal? I would be very uncomfortable if I was unclothed and someone two feet away from me took off their clothes and a penis appeared.”

Roz wants to know if she is prejudiced and needs to “get over this” or whether it is fair to ask trans people to make accommodations in common areas where it is normal for people to walk around starkers.

I think it’s a good question. Wish I had a good answer, but I don’t. I toss the question out in hopes someone more qualified than I will offer some insight. If anything of interest comes through, I’ll share it in a future column.

Meantime, Roz’s email offers a valuable primer in the way thoughtful people confront the inevitable quandaries and conundrums raised by social change. They question conscience, they search soul, they struggle to find the answer that best respects the needs and dignity of all involved.

Her example stands in sharp contrast to those being offered in North Carolina and elsewhere, where laws and rules are being pondered and passed in a panicky haste to restrict transgender people to the restroom corresponding with their birth gender. This, we are told, is necessary to prevent sexual molestation of children in public facilities.

Which is, of course, nothing more than a new iteration of the old canard about LGBT people as sexual predators. You will notice that nobody is contemplating new laws to protect children from Dennis Hastert.

That’s because protecting children is not the point. The exploitation and manipulation of fear is.

Increasingly, this is what our lawmakers do. How many times have you seen laws promulgated to address things that never happen? Remember California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bid for a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning? Remember when Oklahoma tried to amend its constitution to stop the use of Sharia law?

These bathroom bans, then, are of a piece with the new American ethos. Home of the brave? Try fiefdom of fear. And not even fear of stuff that might happen. No, fear of stuff that never will.

For many Americans, fear is the reflexive response to social change. They are threatened by what is outside their experience, by whatever is new, or different, or odd. And too often, those fears get enshrined into law by pandering legislators, building walls to restrict what they don’t even try to understand.

Roz’s email is a timely reminder that a person can choose to be better than that. She can challenge herself, grapple the fears to which other people surrender. She can reject the false security of walls.

And maybe even build a few bridges instead.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

(c) 2016 THE MIAMI HERALD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Photo: A hotel worker cleans a swimming pool at the Hotel Ivoire in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, September 11, 2015. REUTERS/Joe Penney

The Girl Scouts’ Inspiring Example Of Moral Courage

Thank heaven for little girls.

So sang French actor Maurice Chevalier in a famous song celebrating “their little eyes so helpless and appealing” and the fact that “they grow up in the most delightful way.”

Well, we are here to thank heaven for little Girl Scouts — and for former girl Megan Ferland, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Western Washington. We are indebted to her for a recent inspiring example of moral courage.

Last spring, a donor she declines to identify gave Ferland’s chapter an outsized gift: $100,000. Ferland told Seattle Met, a local magazine, that this represented nearly a quarter of the council’s annual fundraising goal — and an opportunity for 500 girls to go to camp. She and her staff were over the moon.

They came back to Earth quickly. In May, as Bruce Jenner’s transformation into a woman named Caitlyn was dominating the news, Ferland received a note from her donor: “Please guarantee that our gift will not be used to support transgender girls. If you can’t, please return the money.”

Ferland returned the money.

Asked why she did it, she gave a simple explanation: “Girl Scouts is for every girl.” Indeed. As the Boy Scouts continue their long stumble toward inclusivity — they did not fully banish racial segregation until 1974, did not welcome gay boys until 2013 and are still mulling over the acceptance of gay men as leaders — the girls have made it part of their DNA. From their founding 103 years ago, they have welcomed girls regardless of race. You will not hear of them rejecting anyone on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2012, they affirmed a policy of case-by-case acceptance of transgender girls.

As they say, girls rule, boys drool.

The story, you’ll be happy to know, has a happy ending. Ferland turned to crowd-funding on Indiegogo.com to replace the missing money. At this writing, the tally stands just north of a quarter-million dollars. But the money raised is less impressive than the example set.

One need not be unsympathetic to transgender people to empathize with those who feel the world is becoming an ever more confusing place. Where homosexuality once seemed the last frontier of sexual identity in terms of public acceptance, we now find ourselves grappling with the needs and demands of the transgender community, those who feel they were born with the wrong gender characteristics — and who take steps, whether surgical, cosmetic or cultural, to rectify the error.

How do the rest of us relate to that population? How do we accommodate them? What public restrooms do they use?

These are not easy or inconsequential questions and it is understandable that some of us find them difficult. What is not at all understandable is the impulse to handle difficult questions by segregating those who make them necessary behind barbed wire of social rejection: You can’t do this, you can’t join that, you can’t go here, you can’t participate there.

It is a tactic that has been tried repeatedly, tried by coercion of custom, force of law and threat of violence. When in all of the grand sweep of time has it ever worked? When has the marginalized group ever sat contentedly behind barbed wire without demanding, and fighting for, change? When have the people who imprisoned them there ever been vindicated by history?

Never. The trend of humanity is always toward more freedom and more inclusion for more people.

In rejecting what amounted to a $100,000 bribe, Megan Ferland implicitly recognized this. If the path she chose was more uncertain financially and more difficult socially, it was also gutsy and heartening — a powerful defense of essential human dignity.

Thank heaven for little girls? Maurice Chevalier didn’t know the half of it.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FlL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.) 

Photo: Ed Uthman via Flickr

For NYPD, No Defense For The Indefensible

This should not even need saying, but obviously, it does. So, for the record:

To oppose police brutality is not to oppose police. No one with a brain stands against police when they do the dangerous and often dirty job of safeguarding life and property. But no one with a conscience should stand for them when they assault or kill some unarmed, unthreatening somebody under color of authority.

Support good cops, oppose bad ones: You’d think that a self-evident imperative. But it turns out some of us are unwilling to make the distinction. For them, the valor of the good cops renders the bad cops immune to criticism.

As you’ve no doubt heard, an unstable man named Ismaaiyl Brinsley went cop hunting in Brooklyn on Dec. 20. He randomly shot to death two police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, in retaliation for the unpunished police killings of two unarmed African-American men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York.

What followed was tiresomely predictable. Erick Erickson of Fox “News” said President Obama and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio had “all but encouraged retaliation” against police. Rudy Giuliani accused the president and the mayor of putting forth propaganda that “everybody should hate the police.” The National Review Online blamed Obama and de Blasio for creating a “racially charged, rabidly anti-police” atmosphere.

It might be hard to tell from that superheated rhetoric, but the sin they refer to is as follows: Obama and de Blasio called for reform as people vigorously protested the Staten Island and Ferguson killings.

Tempting and easy as it might be to deconstruct all that right-wing drivel, what should truly trouble us is the behavior of the police in the wake of the shooting. Meaning those New York cops who pointedly turned their backs on the mayor as he spoke at Ramos’ and Liu’s funerals. The NYPD has also engaged in a work slowdown — arrests, tickets and summonses down sharply over the last two weeks.

With this temper tantrum, this turning its back on the representative of the people it serves, the NYPD shames itself, shames its profession, and dishonors the memory of its slain men. It also, paradoxically, makes stronger the case for reform.

What other profession behaves this way? Do good lawyers see an attack on bad lawyers as an attack on them all? Are good firefighters threatened by criticism of incompetent ones? Yet this behavior is routine among police — something to keep in mind when we talk reform.

It’s all well and good to say we need body cams, but that’s just a start. As the cases of Rodney King in Los Angeles and Eric Garner in Staten Island make apparent, a visual record is useless if people are unwilling to see what is right in front of them. And yes, there should also be some state-level mechanism for a special prosecutor in cases like these, so we are never again asked to believe impartial justice can be meted out to a given cop by people in the local courthouse who work with him every day.

But the behavior of New York cops, their righteous pique at the idea of being questioned by the people they work for, suggests another needed reform. We must find ways to change police culture so that it becomes easier for cops to police themselves, to name and shame the brutal or trigger-happy incompetents among them.

Yes, that will be much easier said than done: In no other job might your life depend tomorrow on the colleague you stand up against today. But the alternative is this status quo wherein police are effectively above the law they swear to uphold.

Where bad cops cannot be questioned, good cops cannot be trusted — and all cops are undermined.

There’s something else that should not need saying, but does.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad